Ag2r-La Mondiale are in the UCI World Tour. This status guarantees the French team entry to all the big races. But this position is under review given their low rankings.
To summarise, any team sitting in 14-18th place in the UCI’s internal rankings sees the position in the top flight under review. Right now Ag2r, the new Lotto-Ridley team, Katusha and Geox sit in this “relegation zone”. Dropping down to Pro Continental status is not automatic, simply the position reviewed and set against the arrival of new applicants.
In a bid to lift themselves up, Ag2r have been trying to sign new riders. A couple of weeks ago I wrote how they were close to signing Iranian rider Mehdi Sohrabi but in fact he went to Geox-TMC, the Italo-Hispanic squad is also in need of ranking points.
Now Ag2r have three new riders. They are Iranian Amir Zargari, Russian Boris Shpilevsky and Slovenian Gregor Gazvoda. They sit in third, fifth and sixth place in the UCI’s Asia Tour rankings and bring valuable points. They have one year contracts. As such, Ag2r climb in the rankings but it’s very close, they only just pass Geox and Katusha.
And right now Oscar Freire is in talks with Katusha and the Russian squad needs his points. The recruitment of the trio by Ag2r now means Katusha will have to sign Freire. It’s amusing that Ag2r ends up hiring a Russian which could prompt a Russian team to hire a Spaniard.
But it’s worth asking whether it’s worth it. Clearly team manager Vincent Lavenu thinks it is for his squad. But let’s explore the other side. Applying for a licence costs €100,000 and having to race on several fronts plus do three grand tours per year means a larger squad is needed, in short it’s expensive. But what if the benefits could be obtained without the costs? Hiring a rider who could win more races and make the team an attractive wildcard for the Tour de France organisers is another method and for Ag2r doors are already open because the team is French. But this is risky – what happens if the star recruit gets ill? – and Lavenu seems to prefer the certainty. As for Katusha or Geox, they need the World Tour status to ensure they ride the big races.
Winners and losers?
The winners here are the riders on the Asia tour and other rankings who can literally cash in their points for a spot with a big team, banking a salary that will let them live like a king back home.
But I can’t help feel the notion of sport loses. There are four pillars for a World Tour licence: administrative, financial, ethical and sporting. I can’t help feeling it’s not exactly sporting recruiting thirty-something riders for their points. This is a transaction: cash for points.
Not that pro teams are ignoring new riders, Ag2r have signed Romain Bardet, one of the top amateurs in France this year but the pressure to stay in the top flight is creating incentives to hire points that seems pretty short term. It’s all a long way from the days when Vincent Lavenu went out of his way to recruit a kid with a face almost carved from granite from a country nobody had heard of. His name was Alexandre Vinkourov and he had no points.
Riders are normally signed to a team because of what they can bring in the future, whether their reputation or their ability. Now some riders are being signed for their retrospective points haul. It’s good for lesser riders who can step up but I worry the recruitment of these riders isn’t about helping promising riders try bigger races, it’s just a move to keep teams in the top flight. If squads resort to this, do they really deserve a place at the top?